We felt absolutely normal. We laughed, cried, gossiped, watched make-up tutorials, went on juice-cleansing diets and found out that they didn’t work, took selfies, talked to parents, avoided conversations with parents; stood in lines on April 15th to file our taxes, watched Home Alone on Christmas. But we were different; one mention of the word stripper changed everything.
“When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.” So, here goes.
About six years ago, when I was a chubby 19-year-old student on a full scholarship from the most prestigious business school in Russia, I came to America to participate in an international summer exchange program, called “Work & Travel.”
I walked out of JFK and slipped on a banana peel named Archie (he was a Russian cab driver.) I slid into the world of New York strip joints and topless bars, finally landing at one of the biggest and most renowned gentlemen’s clubs in the city – Flash Dancers.
If you live in New York, you have probably seen the luscious Flash girl winking at you with pursed lips from atop of a yellow cab at least once. No, that’s not me. (I was a chubby teen back then, remember?)
Archie brought me to a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn where I found out from seven other girls that the job he helped me get was stripping. Obviously, I was shocked. “No way would people pay money to see this naked! Lunch-lady arms, tiny tits, and gap-lacking thighs.” But Archie was very supportive and showered me with an array of body- positive affirmations. He jotted my name down on the schedule for the next night.
So, there I was – proper and timid – a know-it-all nerd whose sexual experiences were limited to uncomfortably moist kisses from her great uncle, a warm feeling between her legs during the scissors exercise in gym class, and disappointing farewell sex with her high school boyfriend. Next step: stripperhood. No, nobody threatened me, drugged me, or chained me to a radiator. It was nothing like that Netflix Doc about Eastern European human trafficking you watched. I was genuinely intrigued by the prospect of trying myself out as an exotic dancer.
The first months of being a stripper were exhilarating. I enjoyed being the object of male desire, being on top of the stage looking down at their hypnotized faces; and most of all, I enjoyed the money. Lots and lots of money. But this is what I signed up for.
What I never expected is I came to love the women who worked at the club. I come from a good family; I won a national scholarship, I attend the most prestigious college in Russia for free! So, at first, I looked down at them, I felt like I was smarter, better. I was different and just along for the adventure. That’s what I told myself. But things changed when I let go of the clichéd image of a hopeless single mother stripping to make ends meet, the inaccurate image drilled into my subconscious by numerous movies and TV shows. Instead, I found real people, real women, real friends who always had your back (except for those trying to stab it). Sure, some of them were the beaten girlfriends, abused daughters, and rape survivors, but when they were on that stage, they were never victims. They were graceful, confident, ambitious. They were powerful.
I stayed a stripper for almost three years. So, I was your average sex worker.